Cognition – Managing learning and applying, understanding and comprehension in the workplace

Understand and follow instructions, and learn and apply knowledge and skills

For a person to integrate well into a workplace, they need to be able to understand and follow instructions, as well as learn, maintain and apply skills and knowledge in some form. It is important to know that a person with a cognitive impairment like an intellectual or specific learning disability or acquired brain impairment, may have trouble in one or more of these areas. This might be because they have trouble with language and communication skills including interpreting the spoken and written word. As a result, people with a cognitive impairment tend to develop skills and knowledge most effectively by 'doing'. That is, they are often tactile (touch related) learners rather than auditory or visual learners. Adequate support and assistance with these difficulties can help to reduce stress, social withdrawal and poor work performance.

Develop work related skills

Being able to learn and develop work related skills and knowledge is needed in workplaces across all industries. It is important to recognise that different learning styles exist and that people often have a preferred style of learning. This is very important when developing or delivering training programs. There are three basic learning styles; visual, auditory and tactile or kinaesthetic. Learning styles are based on the different ways we experience or perceive the world around us. That is, by seeing, hearing, touching or moving.

Understand verbal instructions

The ability to understand verbal instructions and correctly follow them is a skill needed in most workplaces. In general, people with a cognitive impairment often experience some degree of difficulty with language, and typically do not possess strong verbal communication skills. The way information is presented and ordered can also affect how much is understood and retained. This means that extra support and alternative ways of instruction, for example, using a hands-on approach or active learning strategies may be needed.

Active learning

Active learning is a broad term used to refer to ways of learning that focus on gaining skills and knowledge through doing, performing and taking action. Active learning can include the use of role-plays, simulations, demonstrations, team activities, ‘hands-on’ doing or games. Some people may be more open to active learning strategies. Tactile (touch related) people learn best when they are physically engaged in a 'hands-on' approach, that is, they learn best by 'doing' as opposed to listening to a speaker or reading a manual.

Workplace adjustments and solutions

  • ensure there are regular breaks during training sessions and opportunities for workers to walk around, feel and explore the workplace if they are being newly inducted
  • ensure good eye contact is established when providing instructions and that the message is clearly directed at the relevant individual
  • provide instructions in a quiet area, so that distractions are reduced
  • keep verbal instructions brief and straight forward, using simple language
  • ensure that instructions are presented in the sequential (one after the other) order that the tasks need to be completed
  • confirm a worker’s understanding by asking for a demonstration or to paraphrase what was said, to clarify comprehension
  • provide different communication styles, for example, role play or demonstrate the instructions, including the 'do’s' and 'don'ts', possibly more than once. Allow the worker the opportunity to practice for themselves while provided with appropriate feedback
  • keep written information brief and to the point, breaking down specific tasks or processes into discrete steps and using visual prompts for each step to consolidate understanding, for example, use a pin-up board or whiteboard displaying flow charts
  • provide written or pictorial task charts either on laminated cards or on a board to enable workers to refer to instructions as required
  • provide access to large whiteboards for drawing symbols or pictures that enable workers to make their own interpretation of new information in a way that is meaningful for them
  • include team activities to build up understanding
  • establish a buddy program with a co-worker to provide extra support for workers who experience verbal communication difficulties, especially while learning new skills .

Understanding industry specific or technical information

To help workers understand industry specific or technical information, the following approaches can help:

  • develop a glossary of technical or industry specific terms and acronyms commonly used in the workplace and have it visible
  • offer workers repeat induction training sessions or other in-house training to promote understanding of industry specific information
  • rewrite detailed material so that it is clear for someone with very limited technical knowledge or industry experience, avoid any jargon and include where possible, dots or bullet points, large print and colour coded text
  • incorporate dots or bullet points for written instructions, using large print for headings and colour coding different sections or steps within any written text
  • when starting on a new task, work alongside a co-worker or buddy to allow for role modelling of task steps until confidence is established
  • for factory or production workers, use a model of the various stages of the product during production to act as an example for comparison and completion

Expressive language

Expressive language is the ability to talk aloud in sentences that can be understood by others. It is possible to also express language in ways other than through verbal communication (non-verbal). Due to disability or illness, sometimes people know what they want to say but have trouble getting the words out or expressing it. This could be due to a physical limitation, an intellectual disability, stuttering or another speech or voice disorder.

Workplace adjustments and solutions

  • speech generating devices - there are several types of augmentative communication devices and products that can promote the communication of language using signs, gestures, pictures, tactile feeling boards, real objects and printed words
  • tools such as graphic organisers allow people who have intellectual disability or learning difficulties to communicate through a series of pictures rather than the use of words and sentences
  • employers and co-workers can help people who have trouble using expressive language by giving them extra time to talk, asking them to repeat what they have said instead of pretending it was understood and possibly use index cards with instructions, rather than verbal instructions.

Social perceptiveness

Social perceptiveness is understanding a person’s verbal and non-verbal behaviour and actions. This can include having to understand and explain a combination of what a person has said, as well as their tone of voice, body language, gestures and facial expressions. Being socially perceptive is important in all social settings, including the workplace. Particular examples include:

  • how to recognise and respond to sarcasm or banter as some people without social perceptiveness may take what is said very literally
  • how to interpret and respond to nonverbal communication or cues if they have poor visual perception of facial and body language

People may not know they lack social perceptiveness or how it affects relationships and interactions with other people at work. For example, they may not be able to recognise when a co-worker is stressed and may ask for assistance at an inconvenient time. Social perceptiveness can be improved with the provision of relevant strategies and support. It is important to recognise and respect that people have the right not to change their behaviour, even when they are made aware of the affect it has in the workplace.

Workplace solutions and adjustments

  • role play or show appropriate responses in different workplace situations, then allow the worker the opportunity to practice for themselves, providing appropriate feedback - appointing a mentor for this purpose may be effective
  • recognise behaviours that show improvements in social perceptiveness such as a simple "well done" for recognising when not to interrupt a co-worker
  • offer rewards for positive behaviour changes to maintain motivation levels
  • a trained psychologist or counsellor may be able to help workers with the development of social perceptiveness, such as increasing understanding of body language.

Support Services

Australian Government employment service providers, like Disability Employment Services (DES), provide a range of help and support to people with disability and their employers including coaching, mentoring and support on the job. DES can help people who experience learning difficulties, such as people with intellectual disability, in the development of work skills. To find a DES provider near you, go to our list of DES providers.

A cognition and communication specialist or speech pathologist may also be able to help with verbal communication in the workplace. For more information visit the Speech Pathology Australia website.

Easy English interpreters may be able to help a person with a cognitive impairment to better understand work related written material by breaking down complex information and explaining it or changing it into simple language, without the use of jargon or technical terms.

Related Links

Dementia Australia
Epilepsy Action Australia

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